Having just completed an eight-year sentence for burglary and grand theft, Isabel Sipes feared her time behind bars had marked her forever. "You know the scarlet letter?" asks Sipes, 43, who left Florida's Broward Correctional Institution in March 2000. "That's what you feel like you're wearing when you get out of prison." But soon after her release, Sipes attended a free seminar called the Look for Success—and learned to wear eyeliner instead. The one-session beauty course, aimed at easing the transition from inmate or welfare mother to working woman, provides participants with a professional makeup job, do-it-yourself tips, a gift bag of supplies and, most important, a pep talk from the program's founder, Kim Goedde (pronounced "go-dee"), 33. "With the confidence Kim helped give me," says Sipes, now working for her sister's bedding-accessories company, "I'm getting on my feet."

Goedde's connection to her clients—often sent her way by state and county agencies—is more than skin deep. "I know their situation because I was in it," she says. Goedde herself didn't put on lipstick until she was 16 years old and doing a stint in beauty school. Her parents, Karlene, 54, a hospital receptionist, and Robert, a union official who died in 1999, wouldn't allow it. At 22, Goedde was living at home in Wixom, Mich., and working as a legal secretary when she went to Miami on vacation and fell in love with a lawyer. The affair ended after she became pregnant with Olivia, now 7. Back in Michigan, Goedde's disapproving family "pretty much kicked me out," she says. She wound up on welfare in 1993.

Goedde never intended to stay there, though. And when federal welfare-to-work legislation forced her to seek employment in '96, she decided to use her beauty-school training on behalf of other struggling women. Through contacts she made in a job-counseling program, she found an attorney who helped her file for non-profit status. Another attorney, Jonathan Marks, persuaded a foundation he administers to give Goedde a $5,000 grant. "It sounded like a great idea," Marks says of the Look for Success, "and I thought it was worthy of some money." So did Estée Lauder Inc., which donated $25,000 worth of cosmetics. After recruiting a handful of makeup artists as volunteers, Goedde began holding classes at prisons, vocational high schools, even in her own apartment. That same year, 1998, she also got her B.A. in international relations from Florida International University.

Not that the way has been totally smooth. Goedde had a second daughter, Claire, in February 2000 with her current boyfriend, a 21-year-old college student. ("I have friends who have been waiting years for the perfect guy," Goedde explains. "I wanted to have children.") Goedde's mother stopped speaking to her again for a time. And though the two have reconciled—"She was always high energy," says Karlene, "and now she's putting it toward something positive"—practical problems remain. Despite some financial help from her mother, her boyfriend and Olivia's father, Goedde is barely scraping by. Her office is the two-bedroom condo, rented from a friend, that she shares with her girls. Goedde spends hours each day soliciting donations. She wants to be able to pay makeup artists and not have to rely on volunteers. Someday, she hopes, the Look for Success may even give her a steady paycheck.

She deserves it, say her clients. "I felt ugly," says Angela Dowtin, 32, who served five months for grand theft at Miami-Dade County Jail. "After they put lipstick and eyeliner on me, I was ready to take on the world." Applying for work at a medical billing company, Dowtin says, "I went in with my makeup on and my head held high." She got the job.

Goedde thrives on such successes. "When you give them a makeover and see the expression on their faces, it's really wonderful," she says. "Everything in my life—mistakes, errors—has brought me to this point."

Claudia Glenn Dowling
Lori Rozsa in Miami

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  • Lori Rozsa.